Thursday, 4 December 2014

Book of the Month: May We Be Forgiven (A. M. Homes)

May We Be Forgiven, American writer A M Homes’s 2012 novel, starts brilliantly. Harry Silver, a Jewish underachieving academic (there is no cause and effect, here), a Nixon scholar, married to an American-Chinese woman, who is more successful (that is she earns far more money than Harry), is having a Thanksgiving dinner with the family of his younger brother, George. George, of whom Harry is secretly jealous, is a successful executive in a television company and—it is a job requirement, really—is an aggressive psychopath who likes to brag. So that’s what George is doing at the dinner table. Talking about himself while “picking turkey out of his teeth”. Harry is toing and froing between the kitchen and dining room, as Claire, his Chinese-American wife, is sitting at the table listening to George’s self-aggrandizing talk and George’s teenage children are sitting like “lumps” at the table, “as if poured into their chairs”, “truly spineless”, their “eyes focused on the small screens” in front of them. Its Jane, George’s wife, who is helping Harry clean up in the kitchen. Then Jane cosies towards Harry and plants a kiss, “wet, serious and full of desire” on George. Fast forward a few months. George jumps a red traffic signal and rams into another car, killing the couple in the car on the spot though their young son survives. George has what the psychiatrists describe as a breakdown and is wheeled into the local hospital. Harry is dispatched by Claire to help George and Jane. Harry takes his job way to seriously and begins comforting Jane in George and Jane’s marital bed while George is undergoing psychiatric evaluation in the hospital as his lawyer tries to figure out whether the charges against George can be mitigated by a diagnosis of psychiatric illness. One evening, much to Harry’s discomfort, George arrives at the house (it is after all his house), having taken his discharge against medical advice, and finds Jane and Harry in the master bedroom without any clothes on and so close that no light can pass between them. George picks up the heavy bedside lamp and swings in the general direction of the head of his unfaithful wife; then he swings again. The lamp makes contact on both occasions and Jane’s head is a squishy mess of broken chips of bone, hair and grey matter. Now George is in serious trouble, and is wheeled off to the locked loony bin for the criminally insane. Claire discovers Harry’s infidelity and gives him the marching orders. The head of the university where he teaches “Nixon” gives Harry the news that comes as a surprise only to Harry: no one is interested in learning about Nixon, and Harry would not be required from the next semester onwards. Not exactly the circumstances that would put you in the frame of mind to take on the guardianship of your nephews whose mother's speedy dispatch off to the next (not necessarily better) world was substantially assisted by your bedroom callisthenics with her in the moments leading to her death. But that’s what Harry ends up doing. It is a responsibility for which he is ill-prepared, not having any children of his own; and, to be sure, he finds himself in unexpected, not to say tricky, situations, such as advising on telephone his niece who has started menstruating which “hole” to insert the tampon into (she has inserted into the wrong “hole”), and organizing his nephew’s bar mitzvah in a South African village the nephew has “adopted”. Then there is Harry’s mother, stagnating in a nursing home and losing the last of her marbles to the inexorable march of dementia. George, the psychopathic killer, has been shifted from the high secure mental hospital to a scheme that looks more dodgy than the money laundering capers one reads about in the Daily Mail.  In the middle of this hectic itinerary, Harry has to find time to sexually satisfy mentally unstable housewives and random women he meets in local supermarkets, more horny than a rabbit on Viagra. When the novel ends, 365 days (and 500 pages) later, Harry is in charge of a whole gaggle of children (including the hyperactive kid whose parents George killed before he decided to treat his wife’s head as a golf ball), and a village in South Africa that seems to subsist nicely for months on the pocket-money Harry’s nephew sends them by saving on his ice-candies. Does Harry grow up emotionally and is a better person at the end of the year more topsy turvy than the helter skelter in the village fun-fair? You certainly hope so.

May We Be Forgiven is a sprawling, frequently meandering, tale with a large cast of characters. There are several strands to the plot, some of which—for example, Harry’s expertise on Nixon and his involvement with the Nixon’s family who has found a stash of manuscripts of short stories the disgraced former president of America allegedly wrote—sit uneasily in the bigger story, while some others—such as Harry’s dementing mother who is having a nookie with a man of advanced years—much to the disgust of his daughters—probably do not effectively serve their intended purpose, which, I thought, was to depict Harry’s slow maturation as a person and re-establishing dwindling family ties, although they are, undoubtedly, funny.

There are a lot of whacky characters in May We Be Forgiven (rather like Homes’s earlier novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, which was a great commercial success). As a result, the novel has a surreal, almost absurd, feel to it. In an interview Homes commented that she believed that we lived in moment when reality itself was somewhat surreal. What she appears to have tried in May We Be Forgiven, with considerable, if uneven, consistency, is capture the oddity and inexplicability of daily life. The narrative pitch is (deliberately, I think) kept an octave high to arrest the reader’s attention. The novel seems plot-driven at the beginning, but after that the story becomes somewhat picaresque; however, such is Homes’s control over the pace of the narrative that the reader carries on turning the pages, plunging more and more into Harry’s life which seems increasingly adrift.

What also raises May We Be Forgiven above the mundane is Homes’s great feel for dialogue and her black humour.  Some stretches of dialogue are side-splittingly funny; they could easily fit into a comic sketch. Life, Homes once remarked, can be so painful and disturbing that if one has to survive it, one has to find humour in it. The novel is not a satire, but what it manages with appreciable success is to combine the serious with the comic, and in the process tells the story of the redemption of a cold, emotionally distant man.

May We Be Forgiven, despite its flaws, is a gloriously readable, wickedly funny and uplifting read.